Virgil has described Aeneas’ visit to the underworld in Book VI of The Aeneid. It has been considered the most outstanding achievement of Virgil’s imaginative and poetic prowess. The episode is the keystone of the whole of The Aeneid.
Without this episode, the poem would break apart into two separate incomplete and incoherent short epics.
In fact, the visit off to the underworld with all its elaborate religious and patriotic imagery gives The Aeneid its spiritual meaning and vision.
The Beginning of Aeneas’ Journey to The Underworld
Aeneas’ visit to the underworld takes place soon after the protagonist deserts Dido at the command of the divinity. The Dido episode reveals that in the beginning, Aeneas is still a man with human weaknesses, and he is reminded of his mission by Mercury.
The protagonist begins to transcend the merely human place and becomes a symbolic abstraction of the Roman people. The Dido episode plays a very significant role in its effects on the development of the personality and state of Aeneas.
Just before he visits the underworld, the funeral games of Anchises, the father of Aeneas, are held in a Sicilian port, where they took refuge from storms. In doing this, Aeneas fulfills his last strict human obligation to free himself for his new role as the agent of destiny.
Sybil’s Guidance And Prediction for Aeneas
The Trojans started their voyages, and finally, they arrived in Italy. Aeneas climbs a hill to the temple of Apollo in order to consult Deiphobe, a Sybil. Aeneas offers sacrifices, and Sybil details his future, describing the bloody war and his enemies. However, she finally predicts his ultimate victory. Aeneas desires to be guided to Hades, the underworld, but she tries to refrain him from such a dangerous adventure.
However, Sybil gives an instruction that would ensure his admittance there. Following her instructions, Aeneas visits a sacred grove nearby and plucks a golden bough from a great tree. Returning to the temple that night, he makes proper sacrifices, and a vast chasm opens in the earth before the sunrise.
Aeneas and Sybil’s Journey to Hades
Aeneas follows his route to Hades, guided by Sybil. The horrible sight terrifies Aeneas; even so, he maintains his courage, and finally, they reach the river Acheron. They must cross the river before all dead souls enter Hades. Charon, the old ferryman, refuses to carry living beings across the river but finally agrees when Sybil shows him the golden bough.
At first, they arrive at the place reserved for those who died in infancy. Then they visit the place reserved for suicides where Aeneas meets Dido. He sincerely begs to the pardoned, but the vindictive queen even refuses to speak with him and quickly avoids his presence.
Then Aeneas finds many Trojan heroes who were killed in the Trojan War. The Trojan heroes surrounded him while the Greek heroes get terrified at his sight. They also visit the fortress encircled by a river of fire and high walls imprisoned by the sinners. Those sinners have to suffer dreadful punishment in retribution for their misdeeds during life.
Aeneas’ Visit to Elysian Fields And His Father Anchises
At last, they visit the beautiful Elysian Fields, where the blessed souls spend their happy time in Hades. Aeneas looks for his father eagerly, and when they meet, they embrace each other with great affection.
Anchises shows him a large body of souls lined up at Lethe, the river of forgetfulness. He explains that these souls have been purged of their sins and last for their thousand years in Hades. After drinking the water, they will forget all memories of formal existence and be reincarnated to live a second life on earth. Anchises points out many of those who will become great heroes of Rome in their next life.
While identifying those figures and explaining their greatness, Anchises gives Aeneas a summary of the history of Rome from legendary times to the beginning of the empire. Silvious, the would-be son of Aeneas, his descendant, Julias Ceaser, the well-known statesman and general. Moreover, finally, he shows Aeneas, his nephew emperor Augustus Ceaser, the greatest ruler, and leader of Roman history.
Anchises’ Prediction of Aeneas’ Destiny
As Aeneas and Anchises wonder through Elysian, the father foretells the son of the future wars and his eventual victory. The knowledge that Aeneas gains about the destiny of Rome and his contribution to it fires his imagination and intensifies his passion for his fateful achievement.
Overwhelmed with great joy and enthusiasm, he bids farewell to his beloved father and returns to the earth accompanied by the Sybil. Aeneas rejoins his companions on the beach and soon starts their voyage.
Dramatic And Spiritual Significance of Aeneas’ Visit to The Underworld
Aeneas’ visit to the underworld is of great dramatic and spiritual significance. When his visit is complete, Aeneas’ personality has experienced several subtle changes. His miraculous emergence from the land of the dead seems to be a kind of symbolic metempsychosis as regeneration.
The protagonist is now cleansed of all earthiness and has assumed moral strength and historical self-consciousness of the nation he is fated to find.
It is through his visit to the underworld that “The last of the Trojan is reborn as the first Roman,” there is no denying the fact that Virgil was influenced by Homer in many respects while composing The Aeneid. The episode of Aeneas’ visit to the underworld is based on the Homeric epic Odyssey, in which the protagonist Odysseus visits the after-world on his journey back home.
The vague Homeric conception of Hades and life after death is made more distinct by Virgil. Notably, by his introduction of the idea of metempsychosis, the visit serves valuable symbolic and ideological purposes, unlike an exotic adventure of Odysseus.
All the same, the Homeric hero seems to be motivated in his visit by curiosity and desire for knowledge. Nevertheless, the motivation of the Virgilian hero is entirely different, for he obeys the admonition of a higher divine power.
Through his visit, Aeneas initiated into the history of Rome and became conscious of his historic role in founding a city for his people. The episode of Aeneas’ visit to the underworld is the most significant in The Aeneid as far as its structure and symbolic meaning are concerned.